BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Three Sunni Arab groups joined forces Wednesday to field candidates in December’s elections provided for under the newly ratified constitution which many Sunnis opposed. But a group of hard-line Sunni clerics denounced the constitution and said they will not join the political process.

Those contradictory statements signaled confusion within the minority Sunni Arab community, which forms the core of the insurgency, over how to go forward after it failed to block ratification of the new constitution in the Oct. 15 referendum.

Leaders of the three Sunni groups – the General Conference for the People of Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Iraqi National Dialogue – announced they would field a joint slate of candidates in the Dec. 15 balloting and work together in the new parliament to promote Sunni interests.

“This alliance aims to provide Iraqis with a national slate for the elections,” Ayad al-Samarraie, a senior official of the Iraqi Islamic Party, told reporters.

He said the largely Sunni alliance will include some Shiites in southern provinces and that its agenda will include a call for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Iraqi – if progress can be made in building national institutions.

“The next elections are important because they will produce a balanced National Assembly,” he said. “Iraqis will have various options to choose from, and this enriches democracy in Iraq.”

U.S. officials see Sunni Arab participation as a hopeful sign that more and more members of the community will forsake the insurgency, enabling the United States and its allies to begin drawing down their forces next year.

Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the Jan. 30 election, enabling the Shiites and Kurds to win an overwhelming majority in parliament and shape the constitution. Many Sunni Arabs voted against the charter in October because they feared it could lead to the breakup of the country and favored rival Shiites and Kurds.

Despite the Sunni groups’ announcement, an influential group of hardline Sunni Arab clerics, the Association of Muslim Scholars, declared Wednesday that it would not join the political process and denounced the constitution. The association is believed to have links to some insurgent groups and was at the forefront of the January boycott.

“The whole project was American,” association spokesman Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi said of the constitution. “We already declared that the constitution will be only benefit the occupation and the other forces who collaborated.”

Iraqi officials announced Tuesday that voters had approved the new constitution, and immediately attention turned to preparations for the December balloting. The announcement set off a chain of back-room dealmaking as political blocs sought to forge new alliances before the Friday deadline for them to file candidate lists.

As Sunni groups were coming together, the Shiite alliance which swept most of the parliament seats last January appeared to be fraying. Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has decided not to endorse the Shiite coalition which ran under his banner in January, according to associates on both sides.

Close associates said al-Sistani’s decision reflected his disappointment with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s Shiite-led government. Al-Sistani’s endorsement of the Shiite coalition was seen as the principal reason for its success in the Jan. 30 election.

If al-Sistani does not change his mind, the December election could produce a major realignment of the country’s political landscape.

It remains unclear, however, whether political change will produce a quick decline in the insurgency. The U.S. military death toll in the conflict rose to 2,001 with the death of an American soldier in a vehicle accident near Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

In other developments, the U.S. military said that an American warplane struck a suspected insurgent safe house near the Syrian border Wednesday and may have killed a senior al-Qaida in Iraq figure who assisted in smuggling Syrian and Saudi fighters into Iraq.

Without giving details, the military said intelligence sources indicated the figure, identified only as Abu Dua, was inside the house but his body has not been recovered. It added that Abu Dua had also set up religious courts to try Iraqis charged with supporting the Iraqi government and coalition forces.

The Iraqi government said another al-Qaida leader who took part in at least three videotaped beheadings of Iraqis was killed in Mosul last Sunday. Nashwan Mijhim Muslet, also known as Abu Tayir and Abu Zaid, was a senior al-Qaida member in Mosul wanted for attacks against U.S.-led coalition troops and Iraqi security forces.

Associated Press correspondents Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Najaf, Iraq.

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